Amazon's Online Interest Tracking

A few weeks ago, I was doing the usual site-hopping and saw an author mentioned; to see what that was about and because it would be hard to understand what was being said otherwise, I tracked him down and ended up at Amazon.com, where there are often decent user reviews. Turns out that author had some pretty intense views of politics (not so surprising nowadays, I guess) but, at any rate, I didn't finish reading the section and didn't purchase anything. How many of us do stuff like that?

Well, today, I get an email from Amazon saying:

"As someone who has expressed interest in books by <deleted author name>, you might like to know that "<deleted book title>" will be released on <deleted>. You can pre-order your copy by following the link below.

What? Expressed an interest? I don't know how "interested" I might have been; I just tend to try to get background on information when someone mentions something; I might just as well have been at Wikipedia. What bothered me, though, was that since I had not purchased anything by this author nor put any of his items in my wish list, how did Amazon know what I might have "expressed an interest in"? So I went to Amazon to see what I could see.

Amazon Browsing History Turns out that … it appears that Amazon tracks your browsing history. It was a bit difficult to find the controls, but they're there:

Update your communication preferences, in:
Your Store › Your Browsing History › Manage Your Browsing History

I'm going to guess that I was logged in to our Amazon account (at least, I hope I was logged in — especially as I have my browser set to delete all but a few specified cookies when I close it); otherwise, I'm not sure how Amazon would tie my browsing "interests" to my email address.

My thought is this: there's a fine line between being helpful and going far too far. I'm not sure whether I'd be as (as they say in the vernacular) "creeped out" if I had been reading something else at Amazon.com, but I think it's too much to follow customers around with lists of what they check into in order to send them offers. This wouldn't happen at an offline bookstore; I can't think of any offline stores (or online stores, now that I think of it) that surreptitiously gather user contact data in order to send you marketing offers when you didn't purchase anyway.

I've bought my fair share of little stuff from Amazon — CDs of the West Wing series, and the rather amazing Zatoichi martial arts movies. I didn't necessarily buy them on the first visit, either; but I also didn't get follow up emails about them.

I dunno. Is this going too far, or not? Does this give anyone else the creeps?

6 Comments to "Amazon's Online Interest Tracking"

  1. Bill says:

    It really is a delicate balance between helpfulness and creepiness when it comes to interest tracking on the web.

    Imagine if you were in a library, and the librarian noticed that you often went immediately to the science fiction section to look for books, and suggested a new science fiction arrival. Now imagine the librarian standing over your shoulder, watching every book that you picked up and glanced through, and then giving you a recommendation. The second approach sounds pretty invasive – and much like your experience with Amazon.

    By the way, been meaning to pick up some of those Zatoichi movies. Great stuff, there. :)


  2. DianeV says:

    That's what I thought, too, Bill. Or someone watching what words you looked up in a dictionary and forming marketing offers based on those — or forming opinions about what you think. <eek>

    Zatoichi — those are mostly George's purchases. Love the idea of the blind samurai; my favorite was the one where he's carrying a baby on a long trek and has to change diapers as he goes. The (very beautiful) diaper cloth came from, among other things, a scarecrow. He discards them by tossing them away, so they land anywhere. Like in a stream that people probably drink from. LOL

  3. Bill says:

    My expectation is that search engines will follow along a similar path, and become more recommendations systems than finders of relevant information. Some of the statements that I've been seeing come out of Mountain View and Sunnyvale seem to echo that, where "user experience" seems to have replaced relevance in many vocabularies.

    Zatoichi – I've seen a number of the Zatoichi television episodes, and one or two of the movies. I know there are at least 26 of the movies. Fun stuff.

  4. DianeV says:

    Ah, so marketing and monetization may replace search relevance. I can see the need to monetize. On the other hand, I'd hate to lose the capability for pure (more or less) search results.

    Perhaps a "people who searched for <whatever you searched for> also looked at/bought/coveted <this ad>" would do. :) That is, I wouldn't so much mind a third level of search result (after organic and PPC) so long as organic was allowed to remain.

    From my lips to Mountain View/Sunnyvale's ears. LOL

  5. Bill says:

    Yep. I remember searching for the Dalai Lama on the old Altavista, and being told on the sidebar that a number of stores had specials on the Dalai Lama this time of year.

    I've been looking at Yahoo Mindset for the last couple of days, and it has a slider that allows you to rerank organic results based upon whether you are researching a topic or have a commercial intent in mind. It's not a bad idea.

    Hope you had a happy thanksgiving.

  6. DianeV says:

    Thanks, Bill. I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving, too.

    LOL re the specials on the Dalai Lama. It seems SEs can't tell when what is being searched for is a person.

    Yahoo Mindset sounds interesting; I wouldn't mind the capability of changing search results based on some type of criteria *that I could opt for*. However, at one point, I did a one-time search (at Yahoo) for something local, and thereafter could get nothing but local results until I dumped cookies. I think that's a huge assumption — that if you search for something, then that type of thing is all you're ever going to want.

    Given that most people would not understand why this was happening, I also think it wouldn't be such a good business move to limit search results based on a prior search(es) without making it abundantly clear that that's what is happening *and* how to revert to normal search.

    Anyway, just my thoughts. Good to see you.

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